Claremont Avenue winds into the Berkeley hills, but it’s not far until two paths diverge at a wooded junction known as Signpost 29. This point is both a crossroads and also a juxtaposition of the canyon’s past and possible future. One side of the road is so thick with eucalyptus trees that it’s hard to move between them. But on the other side, a similar swath of trees was cut down nine years ago, and shrubs, grasses, and thistles have taken over.
Turns out, Signpost 29 is the testing site for a contentious plan to remove thousands of eucalyptus — and two other species of trees — across 1,000 acres of the East Bay hills in the name of fire mitigation. This proposal has divided a contingency of Bay Area conservationists that normally see eye-to-eye, pitting a group of local activists against established environmentalists, including the Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club has been the eucalyptus tree’s strongest opponent, arguing that these “fire bombs” are a catastrophe-in-waiting, and were a major factor in the 1991 Tunnel Fire that killed 25 and damaged more than a billion dollars in property in Berkeley and Oakland.
The Sierra Club touts removing the trees as a pathway to a safer, more biologically diverse East Bay Hills. One of their pamphlets invites detractors to “see the recovery and restoration happening now before your very eyes!” at Signpost 29.
“What I see is a restored native woodland that’s coming along. There’s no weeds,” said Bob Strayer, a board member of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, which sides with the Sierra Club’s plan.
But nine years after the planting, a band of local activists called the Hills Conservation Network is not buying it. Their opposition has resounded loudly on the streets and in the court room, with multiple lawsuits accusing the Sierra Club of using fire mitigation as a guise for replanting the East Bay Hills with native florae.
Jack Gescheidt, a photographer at the forefront of HCN leadership, calls the Sierra Club’s plan “the Trump-ing of trees.”
The Hills’ activists view Signpost 29 as a denuded former forest. They say the fire risk is overblown. And, even if the eucalyptus was flammable, Gescheidt says, it’s better when alive, and adding fog drip to the soil, rather than being a pile of wood chips.
“Look over there,” Gescheidt said recently while touring the Signpost 29 site. He gestured to the eucalyptus trees across the road, then to the woodchip-littered ground around his feet. “You tell me which is more of a fire risk?”
Opponents of the eucalyptus say that the tree creates a monoculture wherever it invades, crowding out beneficial native plants. It secretes oils from its roots that prevent other plants from growing. What the Hills’ conservationists view as a well-adapted forest, the Sierra Club dubs a “plantation.”
Eucalyptus originally arrived in California from Australia in the 1850s and was planted by the hundreds in the place of redwoods in the hopes of a cheap, fast-growing lumber source. It didn’t quite work out that way, but the trees remained, and even more were planted as windbreakers, and for their aesthetics. Today, there are hundreds of thousands around the Bay.
Advocates for chopping down the trees argue that they won’t be missed. “There’s going to be so many eucalyptus left no matter what we do,” said Jean Robertson, conservation chairwoman of the California Native Plant Society’s local chapter, which worked with the Sierra Club on their plan. “There’s never going to be a shortage.”
HCN has speculated as many as 500,000 trees would be removed. This is the number that has appeared in lawsuits and dozens of news articles about the group, but the Sierra Club says these numbers wildly overestimate the final count.
Amid the ongoing drought, the area is regarded by nearly everyone as an extreme fire risk. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, fifteen major wildfires occurred in the East Bay Hills between 1923 and 1992. The agency granted $5.6 million to three entities that oversee a majority of the land — the University of California, East Bay Regional Parks District and the City of Oakland — to reduce fire danger, primarily by cutting down the eucalyptus in the highest-risk areas.
Work from the funding hasn’t begun yet, however, and there’s no timetable on what could take decades. But that didn’t stop both HCN and the Sierra Club from suing FEMA last year — the former for funding too many felled eucalyptus, the other for not guaranteeing enough.
In the meantime, Berkeley and the EBRPD are well into their own plans to “thin” or “clearcut” — depending on who you ask — eucalyptus to reduce the risk of a catastrophic fire. UC Berkeley favors the more aggressive approach akin to the Sierra Club. But EBRPD, after Hills’ activists sued them in 2005 and later settled, prefers an approach that targets fewer eucalyptus and focuses instead on clearing brush and removing dead trees.
The Sierra Club is suing FEMA for funding EBRPD’s method, saying that maintaining cleared underbrush and eucalyptus debris is too costly and makes the forest floor bare and uninhabitable for endangered species.
“This is not about us wanting to have native vegetation, as we’re accused of being,” said Norm La Force, a Sierra Club board member and lawyer. “It’s the best approach fiscally, and for fire vegetation.”
The memory of the ’91 fire still runs hot. La Force speculated that, had it not been for a favorable change in the wind, the fire would have devastated UC Berkeley and torched the Bancroft Library and reached as far as El Cerrito.
The Sierra Club notes the high resin oil in the leaves, and a crown of leaves infamous in Australia for responding explosively in fire, sending burning embers high up to be carried by the wind for miles. The eucalyptus sheds huge piles of stringy bark, as well, creating a perfectly balanced box of tinder.
“If you personally don’t believe that eucalyptus … were a major reason for why that [’91] fire was as extensive and dangerous, then I can’t talk to you,” La Force said.
The motto of Sierra Club’s plan is “Remove, Restore, Re-establish,” the goal being to convert swathes of fire-prone eucalyptus into an ideal state of grasslands, dotted with the occasional bay oak. The theory is that, over thousands of years, native plants have adapted best to their environment and contribute to an ecosystem that’s sustainable and biodiverse, ideal for rare species such as the endangered Alameda whipsnake.
But HCN president Dan Grassetti says that he and other members chose to live in Claremont Canyon for what it is today, knowing full well the risk. He argues that the ecosystem of plant and animal life developed over a century-and-a-half outweighs the concerns of people who only began living there recently.
“The landscape that the Claremont Canyon Conservancy folks want was created by American Indians, who were burning stuff down routinely. That was not a natural environment, either, since it was influenced by people,” Grassetti explained. “You can draw a line at any point in history and say, ‘That is optimal. That is what should be here.’ But it’s absolutely arbitrary.”
HCN says that remaking areas of the hills from forest to grasslands would cause irreparable harm. Eucalyptus are so fast-growing that, to remove them, an herbicide called Garlon needs to be applied to the exposed stump within minutes of cutting the tree. Proponents of the plan ensure this is a targeted process — but it also puts the Sierra Club in the unfortunate position of advocating for pesticide use, the amount of which remains unspecified because no one knows just how many trees will need it.
“Poisons, bulldozers, and chainsaws were the environmentalists’ enemy. Now the Sierra Club is using these tools to be environmentalists?” Gescheidt during a recent protest in front of the Sierra Club headquarters in Oakland. Next week, on July 10, they’re returning to Berkeley for another demonstration.
A protester in front of the Sierra Club headquarters last month said that many HCN members live in the flatlands, and don’t have the ability to travel the world for vacation. For them, the beauty of the East Bay Hills is “their Italy.”
“A number of us lost our houses in the ’91 fire. One of us lost his mother,” Grassetti said. “We have a vested interest in what’s happening here.”